By Arame Tall
Relief. Jubilation. Levity. And most of all: Liberation. These are the emotions that surged up as I, along with the 12 million Senegalese citizens in Senegal and abroad, heard the news at 21:30 GMT today that current President Abdoulaye Wade had congratulated his opponent, Macky Sall, on his victory at the presidential election.
Indeed, as the first trends began to emerge, following day of voting in this second round of the presidential election that saw the participation of more than 3 million Senegalese voters (at least a million more than in the first round of voting), it became evident that Sall had crushed Wade in most polling stations, by a staggering average 70 percent for Sall to 30 percent for Wade, securing an easy win for Sall.
As we heard that 85-year old President Wade had actually called his opponent, 50-year-old Macky Sall and his former Prime Minister and protégée, at 20:45 congratulating him on his victory, and thus admitting defeat even before the official proclamation of results, paving the way for Sall to become Senegal’s fourth president since Independence, a collective sigh of relief swept over the entire nation. Even the most pessimistic of us, prone to believing that politically savvy Wade had multiple tricks under his sleeve, had to let out a puff of relief.
Spontaneous celebratory marches burst out onto the streets of Dakar, as people spilled out onto the streets en masse to celebrate in exuberance the birth of a new era for Senegal (see video).
Many also stayed home, appeased smiles on faces, relieved that Senegal was definitively saved, and its democracy out of the woods. Peace has returned to Senegal.
SENEGAL’S DEMOCRACY PUT TO THE TEST: BLOODIEST ELECTORAL CAMPAIGN IN THE HISTORY OF THE NATION
News of a defeated incumbent calling the new president elect in any other context would have perhaps not been breaking news. However they came against the background of much fear for the future of the nation of Senegal, beacon of stability and democracy in an unstable region, which boasts of a long tradition of multi-party elections and regime changes since 1974. Following the 40-year old socialist regime led by presidents Senghor then Diouf, Wade had been elected in 2000 under the mantra of SOPI, a Wolof word that translates into Change. After seven years into power, change however was not what was forthcoming; but rather a heinous attempt at grooming Wade’s son, Karim, to serve as his successor and next heir in line, turning the Republic into a monarchy.
A popular resistance moment, coined the Mouvement du 23 juin –or M23 in short, rose in response to Wade’s attempt at changing the constitution on June 23, 2011, the first mass mobilization to oppose Wade’s attempt at constitutional changes. When it became clear that Wade was going to run for a third term, the M23 raised its tone, rallying the citizenry on the 23rd of every month under the banner of ‘DON’T TOUCH MY CONSTITUTION’, and under the even more resonant war cry of ‘Y’EN A MARRE’ (“we have had enough” in French), calling for substantive democracy with social and economic rights for all.
Despite mounting popular pressure, Wade pressed on with his attempt at a third bid for the presidential chair. When the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, validated Wade’s candidacy on January 27, 2012, mass public protests erupted across Senegal, leaving 9 dead and dozens severely injured in the subsequent weeks (see article).
Wade was an intruder in the electoral competition, the opposition and civil society maintained. But run Wade did –as if in an attempt to see for himself what he was still worth in the eyes of the voting youth that had parachuted him to power in the 2000 regime change–, securing a timid 34 percent majority in the first round of voting facing a divided opposition, followed in close second by Macky Sall who had secured 25 percent of the electorate.
For the second round of voting however, all 13 opposition contenders rallied behind Sall, giving him a genuine chance at defeating the presidential incumbent in the final face-off. And defeat he did on March 25, in a crushing manner that defied even the most optimistic prognostics.
A HAPPY OUTCOME: DEMOCRACY’S WIN IN SENEGAL
After being held hostage for three months of electoral hold-up under now former president Abdoulaye Wade, whose unconstitutional bid for a third term had sent the country reeling in a bloody tempest of pre-electoral violence that left 9 dead in Dakar and throughout the country, Senegal has now emerged a stronger democracy.
Indeed, Senegal’s young democracy was severely put to the test in the months past. But the Senegalese citizenry proved their maturity by peacefully going to the polls both on February 26 and in even larger numbers during the second run-off on March 25, proving the power of the ballot rather than that of the street or the rifle, and providing, for a second time, an exemplary lesson of democracy on the continent.
The patriotism and professionalism of the Senegalese army, remarkable by its absence, was also notorious, leading many to think that the Senegalese army was really the silent hero of this second democratic transition in the nation. Indeed, a development such as that in neighboring Mali could have been easily imaginable had the army decided to come out of its barracks in the heights of Senegal’s politico-constitutional crisis.
Senegal’s democracy is the big winner today– not Macky Sall, not even Abdoulaye Wade; but Popular Sovereignty, as demonstrated in this truly democratic African nation that Senegal comfortably sits as today, now more than ever. The People of Senegal have spoken today, and so loudly did they speak that their voice could not be ignored, indicating the way forward to resolve future political stalemates.
Noteworthy also is that Senegal will now have its first fully-fledged Senegalese First Lady. Mrs. Sall, born Mareme Faye, is indeed a true daughter of the land, who will, as the talk of the town has it, bring the enchanting smell of Senegalese women’s incense to the Presidential Palace. This also breaks the long tradition of French first ladies, pervasive in this former French colonial prebend. Is this also an omen of an end to the “FrançAfrique”, the France-African political mafia infamous for its closed-door deals? Doubtful, given that some contend that Sall’s campaign financing came from the French group Bolloré, desperately trying to regain control of Dakar’s Autonomous Port, after former president Wade’s son, Karim, had placed it in the hands of the firm Dubai World.
WHAT NEXT NOW FOR SENEGAL?
Whether or not this marks the end of the “FrançAfrique”, A new era now begins for the country of Senegal under its new, younger leadership. The challenges remain high and weighty: a dilapidated health sector, an education system in crisis, a non performing economy highly dependent on petroleum imports, an idle youthful population thirsty for jobs.
Will Sall rise up to the task on all these challenges? Will he deliver on the substantive democracy that the Senegalese youth called for under their resonant slogan “Y’EN A MARRE”?
Sall has five years to show his true mantle. And whatever ensues, one fact remains certain: the new type of Senegalese citizenry, which the M23 has given birth to and whom we saw fight for its democracy and constitutional sovereignty to death, will be watching over him, alert and vigilant.
Arame Tall is a Senegalese commentator based at Johns Hopkins University.